I think my latest academic/ social obsession is the traffic economy.
Do you ever just wonder how certain people choose the merchandise they will sell on the streets? I mean seriously, you can get anything from life- sized maps to fresh fish to dildos vibrating massagers— all on your way to work. Furthermore, the same person that was selling you newspapers in the morning will come back around and sell you toilet tissue in the evening. The things you can find on the streets in Accra, often differ from those you can find on the streets in Kumasi and even within the cities, different towns offer different items during different times of the day. Why, you ask? Because they have done in depth analysis of the market system and understand the demands of their customer base by location and time— all without the help of STATA or a fancy-schmancy ivy league degree (yup… that’s a middle finger to your $80K/ yr Top 20 University degree #nochurch).The traffic economy is the original drive through convenience that we have come to know and love, yet it is the epitome of many of the things wrong with Ghana: it is haphazard, unsafe, unkempt, unregulated and unclean.
But I love it! So imagine my sadness when I sat and considered what development in Ghana might mean for my beloved traffic economy. Consider this:
As Ghana spends more and more money on building infrastructure such as highways and interchanges, and as roads are being expanded and revitalized, the amount of traffic will become less and less dense. Rush hours will be shorter and you will have less time to just sit in traffic and have someone wave something in your face that you don’t want, but will buy because what else are you going to do for the next 3 hours?!… You have less time to make these decisions and sellers have fewer opportunities for direct sales because of faster moving traffic… so now what?
Are there enough peripheral jobs to soak up the people who will now feel like they are working just as hard for less pay because of these changes in infrastructure? Perhaps they will themselves go into vocational and technical training to contribute to this infrastructural upgrade. Perhaps they will go back to school to pursue education. Perhaps they will sit at home planning the revolution. Who can know? What we do know, is that there is likely a very real link between infrastructural development and employment in the traffic economy. But in addition to its implications for the employment, it also affects economic and social restructuring.
When I was in undergrad, I worked out in Herndon, VA and lived in Seat Pleasant, MD. For those who do not know, this means I had to cross state lines and endure an hour and a half of traffic going to and from work every day. It was gruesome. But though it was slow moving, and stop and go, most people had heat or ac. They also had electronics to occupy their time and there were likely drive thru’s and convenience stores that they frequented before they hopped onto the highway. Is this the fate of the Ghanaian traffic economy? Will it fall by the wayside as infrastructure continues to be a great governmental investment? Is there no way for the traffic economy to exist alongside growth and development? IS this a product of creative destruction wrought by rapid urbanization and rural flight?
Are any of my professors from Grad school reading this and are they impressed by my level of questioning?! <sorry.>
The traffic economy is, first and foremost, the epitome of drive- thru convenience. I mean, truly we did it before it was worth doing anywhere else so two pats on the back for that. But it is also a marker of ‘barefoot capitalism’… and barefoot capitalism is associated with poverty. In spite of this negative connotation, these sensory parts of the metropolitan experience are what characterize some of the great cities like Paris and New York; Cities where people will come to you selling purses, perfumes, watches and other
weird and likely stolen fine goods. We benefit from the fact that our traffic economy is a generally reliable point of sale and the goods are rarely as sus as those found in those major Western cities (because of the vilification of street selling). I think we have an opportunity to de-villify (if there were such a word) the traffic economy. I should hope that we would want to keep ours as part of the Ghanaian experience because it captures something unique and valuable about living in Ghana. Regulating the traffic economy to better incorporate it into the formal economy may help bring legitimacy in the eyes of our western supra- oppressors the international community. The following is a list I compiled of some ways I think might do us a world of good in formalizing the traffic economy without losing its essence:
- PARTICIPATION FEES- Given the recent push for biometric data collection, perhaps every seller could have a citizen number and booth number. For example, to sell MTN mobile, your booth number might be 007. Every month you might be required to pay a certain fee in order to sell on the road. This would prevent saturation of the market, and also allow the government to extract, albeit meager, funds from economic activity. It would also allow the traffic economy to finally show up in GDP beyond just wholesale goods. And it would give the government a more accurate look at pricing and consumer activity on the ground. After all, what is economic without sound and reliable data?
- SAFETY- Another way of formalizing the traffic economy would be changing the traffic lights so that instead of three circles it has four circles, a blue light perhaps. The fourth circle would be a light that signals when members of the traffic economy can get on the street and when they must get off or risk fine/ penalty. Or they could even mandate that traffic sellers use pedestrian lighting to determine when to be on or off the roads. This is mostly for their safety and for the safe driving of those in vehicles. Though I can say that many roadside sellers have mastered the art of dip-and-dodge-with-plantain-chips-on-my-head-and-hands, I will concede that it is generally more risky than necessary and there are things the government can do to prevent those unnecessary accidents.
- UNIONS- Finally the road side sellers could unite to fight for their rights and to pursue their economic interests. They could get a seat at the table and eat at the table of (wo)men. I would love to hear what they might deem to be major priorities for their lives. Perhaps they would be able to adopt insurance schemes, open credit unions, or tap into micro financing to adopt specific measures to traffic economy needs. I mean, the sky is really the limit but at least they would have some organized body, which represents their needs and can fight on their behalf.
- UNIFORMS- perhaps traffic economy workers might gain some legitimacy if they wore specific aprons or shirts or whatever that marked them as tax paying, card carrying members of society. It might give a facelift to the overall look of traffic economy workers and help assuage some of our
bourgoiuse…. uppity…. uncle tombrethren who might have some trouble associating the traffic economy with their identities. Perhaps a more professional decor might allay their worries that the white man will return and continue to see them as bush men, seeing as how almighty and powerful their opinions of us really are… I digress.
I wrestle with the ideas of modernity and development and what it means for Africa and ‘African-ness’. Many academics, authors, thinkers and writers have as well. After all, that is a major part of the premise of books like Things Fall Apart and Zenzele. So without getting super anthropological and metaphilosopical, I do believe there are some essential remnants of how we organize economic activity that we should strive to maintain, if for no other reason than experiential preservation. Plus… what would traffic really be without the pure water soundtrack?! Yesssss Puuuuure!
Do you think the traffic economy should just die so Ghana can thrive, or is there a mutually beneficial relationship that could come out of specific measures of preserving that economy?